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Journey Toward the Dawn
by
Gary Kline



Chapter 1.


        “We're here,” Erik Sunstrum told his date as he swung his van into the disabled space of the Blue Note's parking lot. For the slightest moment he was awestruck--again--at how striking she was. That the girl was blind meant nothing. She could've been blind, deaf, and missing her right leg. The only thing Erik knew was that he wanted her--maybe worse that he'd wanted anything. Ever.

        The young woman named Dawn smiled warmly. “Everybody says they've got the best blues and jazz in town here. And after that seminar, man, I'm ready to party!”

        The tenor of her voice sent a warm surge through Eric. “Me too. It's a bit hard to dance in my kind of wheelchair. But not impossi--”

        “Folks, it is cold out there!” the radio interrupted. “It's 21 degrees here in Pine Falls, but the wind chill is a brisk minus 23 to around 40 degrees. Now the forecast for all of Northwest Wisconsin: From 10 to 20 degrees with dangerously cold wind chills ranging to minus 40 degrees. Less windy and much warmer tomorrow and even warmer on Sunday.”

        “Typical November weather,” Erik said, “but no problem. ”We're close to the front door. Maybe 50 or 60 feet.”

        “You're in a wheelie spot?” she asked.

        “Yup.” Erik cut the engine. “You bet.”

        Dawn said, “My brother Morgan says it's wrong to have this. He thinks it's reverse discrimination; that whoever gets to the nearest parking space first ought to get it. I tell him, God forbid he should ever be disabled!”

        With a grunt of effort, Erik grabbed hold of the arm rest of his motorized wheelchair and half-hopped, half-fell back into it from the driver's seat. “Well...unless a person dies a sudden death, they say that everybody suffers through some disability. Hard to get out of life unscathed.”

        “That's what I told Morgie. I told him he's a TAB: temporarily able-bodied.”

        Her laughter seemed the most beautiful Erik had ever heard. “TAB,” he said with a smile. “I like it!” He spun the chair around, drove to the rear of the van, and toggled a switch. Seconds later, the lift lowered him to the blacktop.

        Dawn was waiting, her white cane unfolded.

        Erik sent the lift back, then led the way around to the front of the tavern. Abruptly, the wind began gusting at gale-force, scouring the parking lot; trying to freeze life in its tracks. He gritted his teeth at the assault as the wind clawed at his breath. He threw the speed into High and sped toward the front of the tavern. Dawn kept up, walking with a confident stride, her cane reporting what lie ahead. Moments later they were at the front of the tavern. “You want to get the door?” he said. “It's a handle on your left, pull open. Large wooden door.”

        They found a table near the back by a hot-air duct. At twenty past nine, the Blue Note was starting to fill up. A piano, trumpet, violin trio was on the stage. Dawn slipped out of her leather coat and Erik shook himself free of his heavy jacket.

        “Nice,” she said after soaking up the atmosphere for a few moments.

        As he rested his left arm on the table, Erik felt a stirring between his legs again. This was the third or fourth time; the ones at the hospital auditorium earlier had presented more of a problem. Even if the audience of fellow brain-injured were not paying attention, it didn't seem that way. Now, hidden away as they were, Erik was free to unzip his pants and rearrange his iron. Almost too sensitive to touch. He zipped shut his fly and concentrated at the drop-dead blonde across the table. Studied her face to take his mind off his arousal. Hers was a long face, neither glum nor giddy. Seriously green eyes and a slender nose; finely chiseled lips.

        At last he said, “So. What'd you think of the seminar, Dawn?”

        “Every thing they said fits,” she said. “Both of us, even though our disabilities are so different. That was interesting.”

        Erik tried to distract himself from what was making him dizzy with desire. “Yeah. Or like that guy from Eau Claire. Wow!”

        Dawn uttered a snort. “Really! Blind and deaf in opposite eyes and ears? Man that's one for the textbooks, I bet.”

        A waitress materialized just then and took their drink orders. When she had gone to another table Dawn said, “When you called this afternoon to ask me about going to the traumatic brain injury seminar, I kind of assumed you found me through the DSP. But didn't I hear you say that you work at Amdahl? You're not a student?

        Erik shook his head; then realized. “Not for a few years. Actually, three years in June. I graduated, then got the offer to work here on campus. I worked for a year and some months before the accident, then after coming close to being a vegetable, I recovered enough to start back at the computer center just last February.”

        “So you're a programmer?”

        “I'm the systems administrator for the computer science department. That just sort of happened. I did sysadmin work while I was a student and they made me an offer after I graduated. But programming is what I was trained to do--I mean, there is no course that teaches systems admin. Probably ought to be.

        “Anyway, I've seen you on campus. Going into Bowles Hall a few times. My office in Danzig faces Bowles. So I said to myself: 'I've got to meet that beautiful young lady.' So I called Rusty Gingrich over at DSP and he told me your name. Rusty mentioned that both our disabilities were caused by brain injuries. So that's how I found you. Inspired by your beauty!”

        Dawn screwed up her face.

        “I am not kidding you!” Erik said with a laugh. “Whether I was in a wheelchair or not, and whether you were blind or not: what caught me was how you carry yourself. The way you present yourself to the world, I guess. Besides which, the truth is you're beyond foxy.”

        She felt herself blush. “All right. Like enough already!”

        “Hey, you asked. I'm telling it like it is.” He added, “Rusty didn't go into any of the details about your accident. About what you talked about at the seminar tonight. I doubt that Rusty knows any of the details. He just mentioned your injury in passing.”

        “Did Rusty say anything else about me?”

        “Like what? No, nothing.” This was a lie and Erik felt a tightening in his voice. Hoped he hadn't given himself away.

        “I don't know. Nothing. Forget it, all right?”

        Before Erik could reply, the waitress was back with the drinks. A beer for Erik and whiskey sour for Dawn. Erik decided he wanted a submarine, if Dawn would eat half. She agreed to that and the waitress went off with the order.

        Erik found himself looking down. He knew he would come himself if he kept gazing at her. He took a quick sip of beer and said, “Anyway, what's your major?”

        “I'm still not sure,” was the answer. “I've got to declare by the end of next semester, though... . Maybe something like social work. That turns my parents off--or my mom anyway, or it may, --so maybe something allied, like psych.--Something where I could help people.”

        He smiled. “That sounds nice. Seems like people are less self-absorbed now than they were back in the Eighties. That's a positive sign.--Or is it because of what happened to you with your accident?”

        Dawn shook her head. “I've always tended toward doing something where I can help people. Like when I was in high school, I was a candy striper for a year at Akron General.” Her voice raised at the end, as though she were asking if he understood. “I got into a lot of social issues, too. Like helping in the pro-choice movement. That drove my mom through the roof, though. She is a million percent opposed to abortion for any reason... so I gave that up. “But I helped out at the Salvation Army and at the Y, and stuff. For sure, there're lots of places that need help. People that need help.”

        “The thousand points of light?” There was a note of mirth in his voice.

        She frowned. “That was a good political slogan, but not much more. If you saw all the need out there, you'd realize that a thousand points doesn't begin to cut it. It's barely scratching the surface.”

        “I take it that you don't plan on voting for Bush next year.”

        Dawn breathed a sigh. “I don't think it makes any difference one way or another. Bush is a shoe-in. So two terms; plus two for Ronnie. After 16 years people will be ready for a change.” Sighed. “Depressing, isn't it? Or are you one of those right-wing Midwesterners?”

        “Actually, I did vote for Bush last time,” Erik confessed. “But that was the first time I ever voted, so.... ”

        “Only your first time?” Dawn exclaimed. “Why! Man, if you don't vo--”

        “Because before that, in '84, I was still bumming my way around the country with my buddy. At least most of 1984. Emmanuel and I decided to come home around Thanksgiving that year. So '88 was essentially my first time voting for President. I suppose I went along with the masses.”

        “And now you regret it, right?”

        Erik shrugged. “I really don't see that much difference between the parties. Whichever is in power, you're going to have bigger deficits, higher taxes, more waste. More BS lies! For me, politics is blah-blah-blah, you know?”

        “Yeah, but at least with the Democrats in, we'd have decent social programs. Programs with a heart, instead of programs for Wall Street types.” She sipped her drink, waved her hand, and said, “Whatever.”

        A few seconds later she added, “I used to get into really heavy arguments with my big brother. On politics, on social issues. And with my mom, too. Can't argue with rocks.”

        Erik smiled. “I'm not a rock...and I don't disagree with you, either. It's just that I'm not into tilting at windmills. Yes, it is exactly like fighting with rocks.” He saw her smile, and went on, “The best I can do is to take care of myself. And anybody I care about. Do my work, earn my keep, enjoy life, and help my friends. The simple pleasures. They're the best ones, don't you think?”

        The slightest shadow of a smile crossed her face. “Mm, maybe. Define your simple pleasures.”

        He said nonchalantly, “Well, things like good food and drink. Wine with dinner; or a beer. A good book; good music. Going out for a walk in the fresh air--well, at least when it's nice outside! Hot, passionate lovemaking, although it's been two years since my last time.

        Erik paused for a sip of beer. “What else? Getting together with friends. Visiting, talking, sharing. Oh, and hot baths, too. --Since my accident, I've had a lot of joint and muscle aches. The heat helps.”

        Concluded, “If you can enjoy the simple pleasures, then that's ninety percent of enjoying life. As I see it, anyway.”

        Erik took another pull on his brew and waited for her reaction.

        “So it's been two years since the last time you made love?”

        “Yeah. More than two years, actually.” He sighed, and the sigh wasn't a part of the act. “She lived over in the Cities-- actually, she went to school here at Amdahl, then moved to Minneapolis after we both graduated. ...Annnd then, after the accident when I was in a coma for all those weeks and then they didn't know if I was going to be more than a vegetable, she decided to get on with her life. I can't blame her. ...Last I heard she was married in June.”

        Absently, Erik knocked on the table. “And so it goes.”

        Just them, the waitress was back with the submarine. Erik asked for another beer, saw that Dawn was almost through with her drink. Erik held up two fingers, and looked at the waitress. “Please,” he said. Just then more than a dozen boisterous Amdahl students came into the dining room from the cloakroom.

        “Business is picking up,” Erik said. “Most weekends, this place is packed.”

        “It's a good jazz band,” she said.

        “Yep, and this is only their warm up band.”

        Dawn finished her whisky sour. “I see why you like this place. Thanks for bringing me here, Erik.”

        “Ah, my pleasure.” He scooped up half of the sandwich, then realized that she couldn't see it. “You've got to help me with this monster sub,” he told her. “It's straight ahead. Middle of the table.” His mouth started to find a way to bite into the sandwich.

        She nodded and reached out with both hands. Found the sandwich, took a bite, and gave a low hum of pleasure. Her right hand brushed strands of golden hair behind her ear. She did the same with her left hand, then said something that Erik had been hoping to hear. “You know... Um, I would be very glad to share that simple pleasure that you haven't had for two years. If you'd like.” She held her breath.

        His heart began pounding. After a few seconds he was able to speak. “I couldn't have hoped for anything more. Honestly!”

        “Hey, don't get the wrong idea! I'm not an easy lay or--”

        “I know that, Dawn,” he interrupted. “You're too intelligent, for one thing. The days of easy sex are history. Like back in the Sixties; or the Seventies. Even parts of the Eighties. These days anybody who's promiscuous--I mean who'll hump anybody--is putting a gun to their head. Pulling the trigger and hoping the gun jams. That isn't you.”

        Dawn's face twisted into a wry smile. “At least not now,” she said. “But years ago, yeah, I probably was that stupid.-- When I was fifteen, sixteen, I didn't care about anything but having a blast. ...Ha. Kids, you know?”

        “Teenagers think they're immortal, all right. ...But if I look back when I was that age, I wasn't any different. Funny how a few years of living out in the real world changes your perspective, isn't it?”

        Dawn nodded. “Sure is. By the way, I'm on the pill. Of course, that's no protection against common STD or AIDS... .” There was a question in her voice.

        “I'm clean,” Erik said. “I haven't had sex for a long time, like I said...and when I was going through all this--” he gestured around his wheelchair ”--I had them run blood tests for HIV. Twice, in fact.”

        “Why twice?”

        “Because I had a lot of transfusions. I lost a lot of blood in the accident, so they gave me I don't know how many units. Anyway, I wanted to be sure that I didn't have AIDS or HIV from before. I didn't. Then just before they released me, I had them double check to be sure the blood transfusions were clean.” Erik grinned broadly. “Now, I may go out and get run over by a semi... but I'm not very likely to die of AIDS.”

        Dawn said, “Well, that's good to know!” She smiled. An instant later she said, “Oh listen! I really like this song!”

        On stage was a new band with a young woman vocalist starting into an upbeat version of “Someone to Watch Over Me.” Throughout the performance, Dawn sat transfixed; attentive, both hands resting on the table. Midway through the song, Erik put his hand gently upon hers.




        It was past midnight when they left the Blue Note. Dawn had finished her third whiskey sour when Erik rolled back into the dining room from the restrooms. She waited by the front entrance where they met. At the large wooden door, he worked on his gloves, then put up the collar of his leather jacket and leaned forward on the joystick.

        Outside, the street lights glared a cold white; a piercing, unnatural shining trying to push the midnight into day.

        “It doesn't seem as cold,” she said. “The wind's died down.”

        “Yeah. Thank heaven.” He drove toward the parking lot, then hesitated. “Do you want to walk to your place. It's only a couple blocks from here. Or do you want to take the van?”

        “I don't care either way, Erik.”

        “Let's walk. You walk, I'll roll.” He started off.

        “Okay,” she said and headed off with a confident stride, swinging her cane in a definite arc, to and fro. A second later she said, “My place is up a flight of stairs, you know.”

        “No problem....or at least, not insurmountable.”

        “No? Does your chair go upstairs on it's own?”

        “No, but I do,” Erik said. “I'm slow, but I can do it. I'm not paralyzed, just have really limited movement in my legs. Plus my right arm. But I've got full feeling and function everywhere else. Where it counts!” He laughed. “Maybe that's like saying: besides being dead, I'm fine!”

        “Yeah, maybe!”

        Finally Erik said, “Street ahead about thirty feet. We should probably cross over here. You live on the other side of this street about a block and a half up.”

        “Okay.” Dawn worked the coordinates in her head as she went along. “I think I have it. Tell me if this is right. The tavern is on the east side of Timber Street. We are coming up to Neuman. The next street north is Richards, and my apartment is four stores north of that. Am I right, Erik?”

        He laughed. “I'm pretty sure you are. Man, I'm trying to put all the facts together in order. Yeah, this is Neuman; next is Richards. North... west. East. Yes, indeed, you're right. It may be second nature to you, but I'm impressed!”

        “When you're blind you learn to have an excellent memory for details. Or else stay at home in a rocking chair. Not this chick!”

        At the stoplight, Erik shot down the curb cut and headed across. “We've got the green light,” he said and watched as she strode forth, swinging her cane like a sword.

        A block and a half later was the Ace Hardware, and above it, several apartments. The stairway was on the northern side of the building, at the front. There was an empty half-acre lot beyond the stairs, Erik knew. No protection from the occasional Arctic gusts.

        “We're here,” he said, stopping at the aged wooden staircase.

        “I know. I'm very familiar with this space. Well, Sir, would you like to come up for a nightcap?”

        Erik swung the wheelchair around facing the stairs. “Wild horses couldn't keep me from accepting your kind invitation, Ma'am.” With a mighty push from his good arm he got to his feet, fell against the stairpost, and steadied himself. He glanced back at the girl a few feet behind, then looked all the way up the staircase. “Shit, there must be thirty steps,” he said to himself.

        “Twenty-six,” she said. “Twenty-seven, counting the one into the building.”

        “Well, no problem,” he said and climbed the first step. He leaned into the railing and climbed a second step, then the third, and the forth.

        It occurred to him that he might break through the railing up near the top and fall to his death. Or worse, break his neck and live. But never mind. The reward was worth the risk.

       

Chapter 2.


        “Stay here for now, will you? The stairs aren't that wide and I may need the room!”

        “Are you all right?” She asked this as he took another step up; and then another. Both sideways. She stepped to the base of the stairs her blind eyes looking up.

        “I'm fine,” he assured her. “Guess I need the exercise. I'm a bit out of shape.” Erik climbed another three steps before stopping to catch his breath. He let out his breath as quietly as he could and filled his lungs in an urgent gasp. He needn't have worried about her hearing his gasps. The gusts of wind were picking up.

        After taking another few deep breaths, he went on several more steps. Saw the girl on the third or fourth step. Decided that he would rest after reaching step twenty.

        Breathing through his mouth, heavily, loudly now, he made steady progress. To the seventeen stair step; the twentieth, where he decided not to rest after all. Twenty-third, twenty-fourth. Almost at the landing. Gasping for air that made his sides ache. Surely the girl heard his struggles; but he didn't care. Another step, then another and he was on the landing. Between gasps that were slowing to simple heavy breathing, he called her.

        “C'mon up. I'm on the landing already.”

        “Okay.” She came up the stairs in what seemed to be an instant and stood beside him. Put her left arm around his waist and pressed herself close.

        He felt the warmth of her body and turned and bent down a bit and kissed her quickly, gently on the side of the mouth. “I'm not a bit cold any more.”

        “I wouldn't think so. Not after that workout!”

        “Yeah, that,” he said. “And you. It's been a long time since I've had a woman close beside me. And one as beautiful as you, who turns me on so much....”

        Their lips met again, briefly; and again, not briefly. Her blind eyes looked toward his eyes for a second before her eyelids fell. She nestled her head on his shoulder. “It's no wonder you're cold, man. You're skinny as a rail.”

        “Always been thin for my height,” he said. “Five-eleven and 140. The most I've been was 160. But, hey, that's all right. I don't need any more weight to haul around!”

        A noisy Ford Ranger came barreling down the street just then. A second later a car full of boisterous teenagers roared northward on Timber, windows rolled down, shouting and screaming something.

        Dawn said, “Are you just going to leave your chair there?”

        “Yeah,” he said after a moment's consideration. “Nothing's going to happen to it in this town.”

        “Let's go in, okay?” She left his side, took two steps, and found the door to the apartment building.

        Making use of his bum right arm, Erik followed the railing around to the door, caught it, and hobbled up the step and inside to a narrow hall that ran the length of the building. There were four doors, each spaced around 25 feet apart. His heart sank. What if it were the last apartment--? Then he saw her cross to the first door. Worked the key into the lock and opened the door. She stepped inside.

        Half hopping, he stumbled straight across the hall, catching himself on the doorjamb. Inside, he spun to the left and sank gladly, wearily to his knees. Heaved a sigh.

        “You okay?” she said.

        “I'm okay. Just tired, that's all. I need something to hang onto --better on my left side--like a wall or whatever. But I'm slower than a glacier, so I've pretty much given up on walking.”

        Dawn shut and locked the door, then knelt beside Erik and draped her arms over his shoulders. His left arm folded around her. “You must want to get laid in the worst way!” she said as they embraced. “To go through what you just did... for me... Wow. It blows me away!”

        “It's not just the sex. It's you more than anything.”

        “Yeah! I'll bet you say that to all the girls,” she said.

        “Not all that often!” He held her next to him, caressing her back, slowly, gently. Her hands were busy unzipping his jacket, then slipped it off his shoulders. He worked off his gloves when free of the jacket.

        Dawn threw his jacket in the corner, then took off her coat and threw it on top. She moved over to the door and her hand searched the wall briefly until finding the thermostat. She turned up the heat. “I don't know about you, but I don't like making love under the covers. Seems like such a prudish way to do it. ...But I like to be comfortable... .” Seconds later, pleasant warm air began blowing from a vent on the opposite wall.

        Erik looked around. It was an efficiency apartment. A bed a dozen feet from the entrance; and on the opposite side a door leading to the bathroom. Some fifteen feet beyond the foot of the bed was the tiny kitchenette, a small, round table with two chairs. A fair-sized window faced the street, it's blind pulled almost completely shut. Beneath the window a small sofa, and on an end table, a stereo. Along this wall where he was, a desk. Miscellaneous textbooks and notebooks lay scattered on the desk.

        Much to his relief, there was carpet. Upright on his knees, Erik made it to the bed and got up. Sat on the bed and began working off his heavy blue sweater. Dawn, he saw, had already pulled off her beige sweater and was slipping off a white, cotton blouse. Then began pushing down her jeans revealing long, shapely legs. The sight made his mouth water. He felt a stirring between his legs again.

        Suddenly she said, “I'm so hungry for you, man. You wouldn't believe it... It's been a long time since I've been laid, too. 'Course, not two years or anything. But longer than I'd like. Despite what you may've heard about me....” She left it hanging.

        “I haven't heard much of anything, really. Just what Rusty told me when I called DSP.” Erik was out of the sweater and his turtleneck. He slid over to the bedside table, pushed himself to his feet, and took off shoes and cords.

        She tossed her Levis atop the other clothes, then stood there in panties and bra, hands on hips. “Mm. Okay. Well, I'm willing to bet there's tons of bad gossip out there about me. It's because of how I was acting my first year here. Actually, just the first semester.

        “I'm not defending myself or anything. Just that I'm not that way anymore.”

        “Yeah. It's funny, but when a guy acts like a tomcat, it's no big deal. But when a woman does it, it is. She's a slut.”

        Dawn joined him at the bed and reached up and kissed him. “That's because women have babies, silly. We are the mommies to the world and the transmission of all decency and culture. Etcetera, etcetera... .”

        “Whatever,” he mumbled. Crushed his mouth to hers, then realized that he wasn't able to stand any longer, turned and fell with her onto the bed.

        Side by side, they embraced, losing themselves each in the other. She shed her remaining underwear, and when he was atop her, he caressed her breasts with his lips and tongue.

        The next thing he knew, she was working down his briefs, then guiding him inside her. Panic struck him when he confessed, “I--I can't piston my hips very well.”

        “You mean I actually get to be on top!” she asked, gleefully. “Oh, great! Oh wow!” Before three seconds had elapsed, she was out from beneath him and atop. She pulled off his briefs, then pressed two hungry kisses to his mouth and guided him in. Inside her lovely, velvet depths.

        Her long, golden hair drifted upon and around his face. It had a wonderful fragrance to it. It fell upon his lips, and he kissed it, then her forehead, and her cheek, and neck as her hips moved with long, slow strokes. His arm caressed her thigh and hip, then roamed up to her shoulders. And ran down. He wanted to draw her closer still; yet knew that would come. Dawn's body had the wonderful--sensuous and erotic--mystical scent of woman that he had known so well before, but had not known for so long. ...So very long. He held the bittersweet joy deep within, silent, enduring the ecstasy.






        “I don't do this very often anymore,” Dawn said as she lit the joint. “But Bonnie--my best girl friend--got this from her boyfriend who does a little dealing.” She took a hit and passed the joint. “And since you said you did it....”

        They lay side by side in the bed, Dawn to Erik's right. Resting against the headboard, pillows propped behind. It was warm in the apartment and Erik was comfortable nude while Dawn had gotten a robe and draped it over herself.

        “Well, not since before the accident.” He took a toke and held it. Reflected, “It seems like everything's changed since then.” Passed back the jay.

        “Have you changed? You, inside?”

        “I don't think so. Not as much as it looks. If you knew me before, walking and running around--all of that--you'd probably say that everything's different. But no, not really.”

        She brushed a strand of hair from her face and said, “The important thing is how you see yourself, I think. More than how everybody else sees you. At least that's what I learned when I was going through rehab.”

        His laugh was brusque. “Hey, don't buy into that too much. How the rest of the world looks at us--or at me--does matter. Like, for instance, before the accident I had a lot of friends. Five or ten good buddies. I had fairly good relations with the people at work. --I had a couple girlfriends.-- But after? shit--” He turned his thumb down. “The only one who stuck with me was my buddy, Emmanuel. The other guys came and saw me in the hospital maybe once. Twice at most.

        “It was like they couldn't stand the pain. My pain. Couldn't stand seeing me so totally messed up.” Erik took the joint that she offered, took a half-hearted drag on it, and exhaled at once.

        “It was worse once I went back to work,” he went on. “Because before I could get down or up and crawl around, behind, over all the computers and hardware to fix things. Check connections; wire up new stuff, and all that. But when I went back, they arranged to have student volunteers do all the crawling around. My boss resented that. He said so to my face.”

        “Sounds like a jerk.” Dawn took the roach and grabbed the last hit.

        “That's being exceptionally generous,” he said with a wry smile.

        After a few moments, Dawn said, “Sometimes, actually very often, when I go into a store by myself to buy something, they'll shout at me. Like I'm deaf. Or sometimes they'll talk to me very, very slowly, like I'm a feeb or something. It's a riot sometimes. I'm thinking of grabbing the bitches by the throat and saying: Hey! I'm blind, I'm not deaf, dummy.”

        Erik turned to her with a grin. “That happens to you, too, huh?”

        “Get real, man.”

        “Hm. The other day I was out at the mall looking for a sweater? And this old biddy stops in front of me and says, 'Young man, if you can understand me, I can tell that you're in a lot of pain. The only thing you need in your life now is the Lord Jesus.'”

        Dawn covered her mouth to quiet a laugh.

        “For a few seconds I was thinking of slugging her hard. I've only got one good hand, but that'd be enough to knock the shit out of her. I figured I could tell the cops that my left arm just happened to spasm out of control--”

        “You probably would've gotten away with it.”

        “Probably! But I chickened out.”

        “Attitudes are the hardest things to change in people, I think.”

        Erik turned on his right side and curled toward her. After a few moments he said, “I think it's impossible to change attitudes. At least very many of them. I think a lot of attitudes are actually inborn. Traits. Things that were inherited over the millions of years for our survival. It's as hard to educate away things like racism or bigotry or fear as it is to educate away stupidity!

        “Like me and my dad used to have these long, philosophical arguments about things like: how many people were truly intelligent or could be raised out of ignorance through education. I used to argue that it was at least ten or maybe even twenty percent of people. He'd laugh at that. He'd say, maybe one percent; maybe half of that. Now I'm thinking that he was probably right.” Erik heaved a sigh and stretched out.

        She turned onto her left side and rested her forehead on her wrist. Said, “Tell me about your dad. Tell me about the accident. You didn't say very much tonight at the seminar.”

        “I'm not very good at public speaking,” he responded. “Besides, I feel like everybody at those seminars knows the story. I've told it before.”

        “I've never heard it, Erik.”

        “Well, it's a real short story, actually. I was in a car with my dad and my brother. It was late August and we were going over to see the Twins play. We were on 53 heading for I-94 when it happened.

        “That's about all I can tell you about the accident because I was taking a nap in the back seat. Brent and my father were killed when we hit the semi. Killed instantly, the report read. And me--well, you can see what happened to me.”

        “Actually, I can't,” she interjected, smiling. “Figuratively I can. Sorry. Go on.”

        “That's about it. A month in a coma, and even after I came around, I was completely paralyzed for four or five weeks. My eyes were about the only thing that worked at first.” A shiver spasmed through Erik's frame and he broke out in a cold sweat. “All the docs figured I'd never be anything but a veggie-burger; but I surprised them. To a point... .” His voice trailed off and he picked at the design in the bedspread.

        “Older brother, or younger?” she said.

        “Older,” Erik said after a moment. “Brent was almost seven years older. ...It's funny how much I always looked up to Brent, because we were so much unalike. He took more after my mother, and I've always been like my dad.” Erik cleared his throat and added, “Brent was in Vietnam.”

        “Wow! Really?”

        “Yeah; he did two tours right at the end. He signed up just after he got out of high school. Two tours, medal for valor. Came home a stone heroin addict. ...Jeez, thinking back. What? 16, 17 years ago? What a basket of memories, huh?”

        Dawn steered the conversation back. “Do they know how the accident happened? How your car hit the semi?”

        He said, “Uncertain. They figure either my dad fell asleep at the wheel, or else the car went out of control. They were able to figure that the car went into the oncoming lane and rammed the truck, but that's about all. The truck driver bought it, too. Few hours after the accident. ...Strange thing is was that we were doing so fast. My father stuck to the speed limit pretty tight.” He sighed. “...Dunno.”

        Responding to the regret and sorrow in his voice, Dawn reached out to him. Ran her hand over his left shoulder and arm. “Hey.... I didn't mean to bring back so many bad memories.... ”

        He drew in a breath and reached out to her. “No problem. It gets easier, I think.”

        “Mm, I'm not sure that's true. I know that I have trouble talking about what happened to me. I was trying to make light of it at the meeting tonight. It's still not easy--even after nine years. I still have flashbacks. Nightmares. On the motorcycle with my boyfriend; laughing like we were absolutely out of our mind! We were stoned, too... . Seeing that concrete piling coming at me. Always in slow-motion. Over and over in my dreams.

        “...No, I don't think it gets any easier.” Suddenly, Dawn swung around and got up, slipping into her robe as she went over to the kitchenette.

        “Want some Fritos?”

        “Sure,” he said. Awkwardly and with effort, he pushed himself back into a sitting position and crossed his legs.

        She stepped back to the bed and sat down, extending the bag of chips. “So how long've you lived here?” she said as he grabbed hold of the bag. “I mean, I never thought of anyone who goes to Amdahl College as actually making a career here. There's nothing up here but the college!”

        “Well, there's the college, and farming, and places like Gritzmacher's Lumberyard. But working for Gritzmacher is only if you're totally desperate! ...So, yeah, you're right. My dad was a math professor here. That's the only reason we moved here.”

        “A professor? Super.”

        “He was the chairman of the math department,” Erik said, then amplified, “Well, actually, all of the full profs take turns. Every few years, one of them has to chair the department.

        “We moved here from Madison when I was ten. Everybody says that this's a great place to raise a family...and it's true.” He was smiling, remembering his boyhood. The forests, meadows, rivers, lakes. Sunshine. Snowshoeing and sledding in the wintertime. Snowball fights and snowmen and ice fishing.

        “Sounds like you wouldn't like to leave,” she noted.

        “Not unless the college burns down or goes bankrupt! Not very likely. No, I left once for several years. Wandered around the whole country. Even Canada and Mexico a bit. This is home. Wisconsin. God's country and all that.”

        Dawn munched on a corn chip. Directed her attention to the lean, sinewy man beside her. “I'm getting kinda tired,” she said as her lips found his shoulder, then his neck. “But before we sleep, wanna have some more fun?”

       

Chapter 3.


        The November sunlight, brilliant and strong, crept beneath the window shade several hours later and woke Erik. At first he couldn't figure out where he was. His sleep had been so sound and peaceful, and his eyes had been so tightly shut that he had trouble opening them. When he had managed to unglue his left eye, he saw her there, mere inches away, curled on her left side, toward him. Closed his eyes, then. Feeling warm and content with the world. Pulled the bedspread up to shield his face from the brilliance, and soon drifted back to sleep.

        Sometime around ten Erik wakened again, this time closer to his usual seven hours of rest at night, and found that he couldn't get back to sleep. After several restless minutes, he got out of bed.

        Crawled around the bed and went to the toilet, then eyed the bathtub and decided to give it a shot. If it was low enough he'd take a quick bath.

        The tub was just low enough for him to be able to crawl over; first left knee, then the right. A minute later the warm water was thundering in, washing over his bones, soaking the stiffness away. He washed up, rinsed, then let the water out, and refilled the tub.

        Some 20 minutes later he heard her stir. And then, “Erik?”

        “In here,” he called. “Makin' muhself t'home!”

        She was at the door. “Why jus' you go right ahead an' do jus' that,” she said. She asked if she could come in and pee.

        “Your tub turned out to be just the right height for me to crawl over the sides and into,” Erik said. He hung his right arm over the edge and managed to haul himself upright. Pulled the stopper. “At home, upstairs the bathtub is one of those old-fashioned ones. On feet? Those kind are a bitch and a half to get in and out.”

        “So what do you do, then?”

        “Oh. Well, after I came home from rehab, my mother had a room downstairs converted into a bedroom and a modern bath. It works out.”

        “So you live at home with your mom?”

        “For the time being,” he said. “I've been planning on building my own house. Customized. I'm going to get the computer program that let's you do your own design.

        “But, for the time being, yeah, I've been living back at home.”

        She got up and stepped into the other room and Erik got out of the tub. Minutes later he was sitting on his side of the bed, getting dressed.

        Finally Dawn said, “The shittiest part of having any kind of disability is how dependent it makes you. That is, if you let it. ...And you've got absolutely no chance at first.

        “Like with me: I was in a coma for three weeks; then it was another year before I could even walk a step. It was three years and eight months before they decided that I could go back and finish high school. Then three more years at high school.--And, man, you wouldn't believe how I fought to get to go on to college.”

        “Who'd you have to fight?”

        “Mostly my mom. She didn't think it was 'socially correct' for me to get out and do anything. But she finally listened to reason. My Grandma Goldman was very persuasive!”

        “Is that why you chose Amdahl? Here in the boonies?” he said with a smile. “You're from Ohio, right?”

        “Uh huh. Near Akron. I chose Amdahl because it's reputation is at least as good as Oberlin or Reed. Or Harvard or Stanford.” Her feet searched the floor for her slippers. Silent for a few seconds. After she put on both she said, “I guess you're right about me liking it that Amdahl is so far from anywhere. It's harder for people to mess with you up here.”

        Erik said, “Unless you happen to live here, that is,” with a laugh.

        They sat at the small round table and had Pop-Tarts and mugs of instant coffee. Dawn apologized for not having anything more substantial.

        “I usually have at least some instant oatmeal that I nuke along with my coffee,” she said. “So you see, I am responsible and I eat a pretty well balanced diet. But Fridays are when I normally get groceries...and you called yesterday around one-thirty, so--” She shrugged.

        “This is fine. Really. Me, I'm lucky if I have a cup of coffee in the morning. Weekdays anyway.”

        “Your mother doesn't fix you breakfast?”

        Erik shook his head. “Nope. She retired after my dad died, and she sleeps in. Night owl. I take after her in that respect; I'm usually not awake much before ten.--Anyway, I get up and do the same thing you've done. Nuke some instant coffee; have a couple cookies.”

        “That's a crummy diet, Erik.”

        “Yeah, but I'm not in very good health otherwise, so no biggie. I figure I'll die of something like colon cancer or heart trouble anyway....” His voice trailed.

        “I don't think that's funny.”

        He said simply, “I wasn't trying to be funny.”

        Dawn changed the topic. “I've got to be going pretty soon. I've got this monster English lit midterm Monday morning, and I'm nowhere near ready. I've got five or six hundred pages to go over.”

        “Well, I'll be on my way in a flash.”

        “Bonnie's probably wondering if I died, or if I got kidnapped by gypsies. Or maybe she's still humping Chad! ...I said I'd be over by nine-thirty.”

        Erik shoved the remaining pastry in his mouth and drained the mug of coffee. “She'll soon find out that you're safe and sound.”

        “And feelin' good!”

        “Ah, same here,” he said, smiling. He pushed the chair back and got ready to swing down.

        “Wait!” Dawn got off her chair and knelt beside Erik. “Wait. I want to see what you look like.” She presented her hands. “Do you mind?”

        “No, of course not. But I can describe myself to you if you want.”

        “Yes. That'll help, but I want my hands to tell me, too.” Her hands touched his forehead and she said, “Go on...tell me what you look like.”

        “Well, ah... .” And after a moment's reflection, he summarized, “Okay: hair is straight, dark brown and medium length. Eyes green. No facial scars.”

        “Your eyes are deep set and spaced wide apart,” she said. “Nice brows.” Her fingers ran over his nose, then his cheeks. “You're nose is prominent, but not over-sized. Very strong cheekbones. Are you stubborn as hell?”

        “No, I don't think so. But then anybody who is stubborn isn't going to admit it.”

        She said, “Mm, okay. Everybody says that I'm stubborn.”

        “I'd say 'determined'. I sense that you're a very determined woman. Determination, conviction, persistent, persevering. Call it stubbornness if you want, but I think of it as being determined.”

        Dawn's face lit up with a smile, then laughter. “Hey, you're stubborn, all right!”

        Her hands explored his jaw, his chin and lips. Then she lowered her hands to her thighs as she knelt there. “Your lips are nice; not too thin, and you've got a nice, square jaw line. You're very good looking, dude.”

        “I've got my mother's eyes,” he said, “but the rest of my face takes after my dad. A hundred percent Norsky. ...Well, if you don't count the Swedes and Fins and Danes and Germans who must be in there somewhere along the way.”

        He crawled over to the easy chair in the corner. Dawn came over and helped him on with his jacket.

        “Maybe some of your Viking ancestors mixed in some Irish blood,” she said. “When they were pillaging some poor Irish village or whatever.”

        He smiled; sat in the chair and zipped the jacket closed. “I wouldn't be surprised. I'm sure Irish, English, Scots, and whoever else. --You're part Irish?”

        “Half. My mother is Irish--Catholic; my dad is Jewish. Well, German, since Jewish isn't exactly a nationality. So I'm German-Irish.”

        He reached up and put his hand on her cheek. “Whatever else you are, you're positively beautiful.” Slid forward and down to his knees.

        Dawn was beside him. “You're really sweet, you know it?”

        “Sweet?” He said with mock disapproval. “No man in his right mind wants to be 'sweet'. We want to be tough and rugged and hard and--” But she stopped him with a kiss. He responded by folding his arm around her and kissing back. Deeply.

        When they separated, he said, “Thanks for everything, Dawn Goldman. When can I see you again?”

        She went over her schedule in her mind. “Well, I'm super busy today and tomorrow and Monday. How about Monday night?”

        “Can I call you? Maybe we can pencil each other in, huh?”

        “Sounds good to me! Maybe we can get together at my friend Bonnie's. Her place is on the ground floor.--I don't think there are any steps, even.”

        “That'd be good. Or maybe we can go out to dinner next week. Or whatever. Anyway, I'd best be getting on my horse. I don't want to interfere with your cramming. Especially not for an English lit exam; they're always murder.” Dawn got up and Erik went to the door, stretched to his feet and went out. Hobbled shakily across the hall and caught the outside door. He spotted the black wheelchair where he'd left it. He was happy to discover that it was mild outside. Somewhere in the 40's and sunny.

        She was beside him all the way down the stairs. It was easier going down because the railing was on his left side; and because at just before noon, he was still somewhat rested. His left hand held onto the rail with an iron grip as he went down, slowly, steadily. Then he was at the chair and swung around and dropped heavily into it.

        “Ah good, I've still got power,” Erik said after testing it. “I didn't have many doubts...but then, you never know.”

        “So,” she said. She wore a black “Amdahl College” sweatshirt, but shivered nonetheless. Wrapped her arms around herself and hugged tightly.

        “So I'll see you soon. I'll call you and we'll get together real soon. You'd better go back inside.” He reached out, put his hand to her right hand; squeezed briefly. “Bye.”

        She said, “Bye,” then turned and hurried back upstairs.

        Erik watched as she disappeared inside. As if mesmerized, he sat there, gazing at the top of the stairs. At last, he pushed back on the joystick and spun around. Traveling without a companion, he could go fast and was back at his van in about a minute. Inside, he listened to the radio as he let the engine warm for awhile.

        “Emmanuel,” he said, thinking aloud. “I'd better call first.” Then he was off, heading the few miles northeast along Pine River Road toward home.

        As he neared the drive of a stately old Victorian house, a black Lincoln Towncar pulled out of the drive and headed toward Erik. He recognized the driver of the car and his mother, Dorothy.

        It was Simon da Cruz, chairman of the chemistry department. Recently widowed, Professor da Cruz seemed to have an evident interest in Dorothy Sunstrom.

        The Lincoln and Erik's van stopped in passing; both men ran their windows down. Da Cruz stuck his head out the window and looked up; said, “Hi, Erik! I'm taking your mother out to lunch at the Sands. Do you want to join us?”

        “Thanks, no. I just got through with breakfast.”

        Dorothy Sunstrom bent down until she glimpsed her son through the window. “You're all right, aren't you, Erik? I was a bit worried when you didn't come home last night.”

        “I'm fine, Mother. I'm tough as nails, remember?”

        She smiled. “Yes, that's right, of course, dear!”

        Erik eased forward, said, “Enjoy your lunch, you two....” Then drove on. In the side mirror watched as the Towncar jerked forward and glided smartly away.

        As he turned into the drive, Erik screwed up his face as if he had tasted cod liver oil. Mumbled, “God, you'd think she'd choose someone better than Simon da Cruz... What a sleaze! Bleah.”

        One of the trio of garage doors wound open and Erik drove in. Five minutes later he was in the kitchen, punching the pre-programmed phone button for Emmanuel DeForrest's number.

        Emmanuel's wife caught the phone and handed it to her husband.

        “Hello?”

        “It's me,” Erik said. “Want some company? Are you going to be home?”

        “Hi. Sara's going over to her friend's. I'm staying home to work on a receiver. I just got through with my yard work for the year. You coming over?”

        “If it's all right.”

        “Sure,” Emmanuel said. “You coming now?”

        “Soon's I hang up. Be there in 20 minutes.” Erik started to hang up but he heard Emmanuel say something. Said, “Say again?”

        “I said: was Rusty right? Did you get lucky last night?”

        “I'll fill you in when I get there. ...Bye.” Erik hung up, grabbed an apple from a basket and put it in his lap. Then sped out the door to the garage.

        Twenty minutes further out Pine River Road, Erik made a left on a gravel road, went half a mile and swung right into a driveway covered with white gravel. At the end of the sixty-foot driveway stood a small rectangular white house.

        Emmanuel DeForrest stood on the stoop. Like so many Native Americans, his frame was stocky. He wore a blue plaid shirt, torn Levis, and tennis shoes that were almost ready for disposal.

        Somehow, though, everything hung together: his dusky complexion, the shock of thick black hair that hung to his shoulders. There were times when Erik imagined his friend as a spokesman for the ruggedness that was the vast outdoors.

        A few inches shorter than Erik, though thirty pounds heavier, Emmanuel was a snapshot of patience as he stood there, arms crossed loosely on his chest, and waited for Erik to unload himself.

        When Erik's chair had descended to the driveway, Emmanuel jumped to the grass and came over. “Tell me how it went. I want to hear if you got lucky!”

        “I don't think I could have gotten any luckier, brother.”

       

Chapter 4.


        As the pair headed around to the back of the house, Emmanuel said, “C'mon. Open up. Explain yourself.”

        Erik paused at the crude ramp that led onto the back stoop. “Well, first thing: the guy at the Disabled Students Program is a jerk first-class for describing this woman the way he did.” Emmanuel opened the kitchen door and held open the screen door. Erik shot up the ramp and inside.

        “Didn't he say that she'd fuck anybody? That all you had to do was ask for it? Hey, that's why you said you were going to ask her out... .”

        “Rusty Gingrich said she'd screw anything on two legs or four. The guy's a mean-spirited prick.”

        Emmanuel came inside and shut the door tight. “But you said you got lucky....”

        “Yeah, for once.”

        “How was she?”

        “Beautiful. I mean that in every sense of the word.”

        Emmanuel sat on the corner of the table and crossed his arms. “Well, well: Erik's back in business,” he said.

        “C'mon, Emmanuel! You're making me sound like a hound! --I wasn't like that. Not really.”

        “But you were, brother. Still are! Well, nothing wrong with a healthy interest in women.” Emmanuel's face darkened. “Just too bad--” He stopped short.

        Erik knew what he meant, but didn't want to dredge up something that would send his friend off on a tangent and cause hours or days of depression. Emmanuel picked up the vibes, got off the table and went over to the refrigerator.

        “I want to go back to the workroom. Get started on that receiver. But first, you want a bottle of Old Squaw Piss?”

        “No thanks. I had four bottles last night. Or actually not squaw piss, since I had the Limited.”

        “Leiney's Limited or regular, doesn't matter; it's still squaw piss.” Emmanuel grabbed a bottle of Leinenkugels and twisted off the top. Took a long drink. Headed out of the kitchen and down a hall to the second bedroom on the right.

        The small bedroom that looked onto the back lawn had been converted into a workroom. Three benches crowded the walls, atop which were various electronic test equipment, several soldiering guns, assorted wires. Boxes of parts and odds and ends crowded most of the floor space.

        “It's kinda early in the day for a beer,” Erik said as he followed his friend into the workroom.

        “It's Saturday. Gimme a break.” Emmanuel moved a box full of electronic circuit boards that sat by the doorway and Erik made it into the room.

        “Whose receiver?”

        “It's for a friend of my cousin Lloyd's. You met Lloyd--he just moved back from Missouri last summer?” Emmanuel looked at Erik; Erik nodded, and Emmanuel went on, “Belongs to a customer of Lloyd's. Lloyd asked me if I could fix it and I said, hell yes. But not for free.”

        “How much you charging?”

        “I told Lloyd a minimum of fifty bucks.” Emmanuel took a long drink of beer. “Shouldn't be more than that. I think it blew a capacitor right beside the transformer.”

        “Be nice if you could get a reputation as a Mr. Fixit,” Erik said. “There's sure enough electronic shit around...that most people just pitch when it breaks. Our throw-away society... .”

        “Right. But I don't want a big enough reputation so that it gets back to Ollie. He'd fire my ass so fast--jeez.” Emmanuel put the beer on the windowsill facing the side yard and grabbed a screwdriver. Began unscrewing the chassis of the receiver from its case. His hands were deft and nimble for being so thick. In only a few minutes, the radio lay on the bench, naked.

        Emmanuel sniffed the chassis and made a face. “It's a fried capacitor, all right. Can you smell that?”

        “I'm too far away.”

        Emmanuel brought over the chassis and presented it to his friend. Erik took a whiff and recoiled slightly. “Not as good as pussy, eh?”

        “Like a fried I/O board, only stronger. Nothing's as good as pussy!”

        Emmanuel took the radio back to the bench and stared at it for a few moments. Said, “The one trouble about fixing this kind of stuff is that you gotta have the schematics for everything. That'll run you a fortune, right there. There goes your profits, see?”

        “Maybe before too long the vendors'll realize there's money in putting the schematics on a CD-ROM,” Erik said.

        “Yeah, well, that's out of my league.” A few seconds later he said, “Tell me about this wonderful new girlfriend of yours. Isn't she blind?”

        “Yes, she's blind. And I'm a crip. She and I make a logically good couple, the way I see it.

        “Emmanuel! Really and truly, I've never met anyone who's anything like her. I mean like, in her I sense this depth of character that's hard to describe. I could be wrong--it could be just my infatuated first impression. ...But I don't think so... . I don't. She's very gentle; caring, I think. And intelligent, of course. She feels for others... .” He fell silent.

        “And she puts out,” Emmanuel said with a smile. He glanced briefly at Erik. “That's what it really is. I've known you for too long, brother... .”

        “Hey, good-buddy, they all put out sooner or later. We seemed to hit it off from the start, and I got lucky, that's all.”

        Emmanuel took his newest voltmeter from a shelf and preceded to probe the receiver. “What's she look like?”

        “Very good looking. She's tall, and on the slim side; not too skinny; great figure. She's got green eyes, very deep green eyes. Long blonde hair. Down to her--”

        “Whoa! That explains it.” Emmanuel clipped the positive lead to the frame of the case and set down the voltmeter. “You've always had a thing for blondes. Remember that cashier outside Tulsa? --But that was an extreme example of your thing for blondes, I admit.”

        “Well, same thing with you and Tex-Mex chicks, Emmanuel.”

        That shut him up for a moment. He took another long pull and drained the brew. Then said, “We're talking about you now. With me, different story now. I'm a married man. The story with Conchita was a long time ago.”

        Erik said, “I wasn't thinking so much of Conchita.” Then he wished he hadn't said anything because there was only one other woman that he could be thinking of. Marguerite, who was Shoshone, not Hispanic.

        “I'm sorry, bro,” he said quickly. “I know you're still hurting.”

        “Forget it. Marguerite's been dead a lot of years. I think I've almost quit hurting over her.” Emmanuel felt the heat behind his eyes, but ignored it. Resumed his work on the receiver, and after a few moments said, “This girl was blinded by a head injury?”

        “Yeah. Motorcycle accident. She says that neither she nor her boyfriend were wearing helmets. He died, and she almost did. The doctors never expected her to come out of her coma, but she did. Then they thought that she'd be blind and deaf and paralyzed forever.... But she kept improving. Everything but her sight. She said they did brain scans that showed severe damage to her visual cortex. But that's the extent of her disability.”

        “Christ, I'd say that being blind is about as bad a thing as you can have happen.” Emmanuel shut his eyes, then covered them with his right hand. “God damn! ...I'd off myself.”

        “I don't think so. You'd adjust eventually.” Erik heaved a sigh. “People adjust to all kinds of shit.

        “Like when I first realized what happened to me. Where I was; how I was. Man, I was so fucking depressed....out of my mind.”

        “I remember.”

        “But I couldn't do anything. I couldn't move anything but my eyes. --And think about how bad I wanted to just fade away into nothingness.”

        “Yeah.” Emmanuel brushed his hands through his thick black hair, then dropped them.

        “But, little by little, things started coming back.” Erik's mouth twisted into a caricature of a grin. “Unfortunately, my recovery only got so far. --Anyway, same thing with Dawn. Things came back. As far as I know, everything but her eyesight.

        “If it'd had happened to you, same thing. You'd adjust.”

        “I have my doubts. I still think I'd off myself. I'm an electronics technician: I use my eyes to make a living. Or you: what would you do if you were blind? You sit and stare at computer terminals all day. Now if you couldn't see...-- You know?”

        “I'd park outside of Donny's IGA and sell pencils,” Erik laughed. “Hey, listen. You're not going to bring me down from my cloud. Not after last night; not after this morning.”

        “You're love sick, man” Emmanuel said, and poked Erik on the shoulder. “Ain't no cure for that... until reality sets in. And believe me, it will. Just wait till you get married!”

        Sara DeForrest found them hunched around the workbench when she came home a few hours later. Erik was holding a circuit board carefully and firmly while Emmanuel worked with a slender soldiering gun.

        “I'm home,” she said, peering into the workroom. She flipped on the overhead room light. “Are you guys trying to go blind or what?”

        Erik looked around briefly and saw the short muscular woman, somewhere around 30, whom his friend had married two winters ago. Her dark brown eyes looked straight into the world from beneath heavy brows that she never bothered to thin. They were attractive, deep-set eyes that contrasted to her pudgy flat nose and unusually thin lips. Her straight, ink-black hair hung barely to her shoulders, in a plain and simple fashion. Blue jeans and a ski sweater.

        For some reason, she startled Erik every time he saw her. “Hey, it's still light outside, Sara,” he said. Smiled.

        “Didja buy me more beer?” Emmanuel asked.

        “Yes.”

        “A case? A whole case? I'm down to my last few bottles.”

        “Yes, a whole case,” she said. “And I got your favorite firewater, too, dear.” She went down the hall to the kitchen.

        “Got it,” Emmanuel said to Erik. “It's a good join.” He blew on the underside of the circuit board for several seconds, then took the board from Erik's grasp and put it back into the receiver.

        “Thanks, Sara,” he called. Added, “Sara, I just made a clean fifty bucks for fixing this receiver.”

        To Erik he said, “At least maybe. Let's try her and see what happens.”

        “That sounds like a good plan.”

        Emmanuel found the power cord, plugged it into the chassis, and toggled the power switch. The radio crackled instantly, then played classical music. Emmanuel let out a war whoop and laughed.

        “Fantastic!” Erik said.

        “It was just luck that I had a spare capacitor that worked. See, that's why it's good to never throw out junk parts. You never know when you can use them somewhere else.” Emmanuel grabbed a rag and wiped his hand, then gestured toward the kitchen. “I'll buy you a beer.”

        As Erik turned around his wheelchair and headed into the hallway, Emmanuel thought aloud. “I'm going to put in new pots on the volume and tone controls.”

        “To get rid of the crackle,” Erik said.

        “Right. It'll make the radio sound like brand new. It'll also give me reason to keep the radio another week. Make the guy think I did something worth fifty dollars.”

        Sara said, “Well, didn't you? Even if you used an old part, you used your skills and knowledge to fix the thing. You didn't go to that tech school for fun and games.” She stood at the counter by the sink, putting away groceries. Then looked at Erik for confirmation. “Well, am I right?”

        Emmanuel kissed her on the nape of the neck. “I think you are. What you say is the same thing that Ollie says: people have to pay for the expertise.”

        “Ugh, the last thing I want to do is agree with that piece of human garbage. I'd like to--” She stopped short.

        An uncomfortable silence lingered for a few seconds before Emmanuel reached for the refrigerator door. “Buy you that beer,” he said.

        “I think I'll take a rain-check, thanks. I want to get home and do some things.”

        “You sure? How about staying for dinner?”

        Sara flared, “Emmanuel!” and her dark eyes flashed with anger. “He said he wants to get home and do some things, for chrissake.”

        “All right, all right. I'll let him go, then.” He looked at his friend. “Are you busy tomorrow afternoon? Say, around one or two?”

        Erik said, “I don't think I've got anything planned.”

        “Then come over and we'll drive over to the spot. Sara's working tomorrow--what? three to eleven?--”

        “Right,” she said.

        “Then we ought to go over to the spot one last time this year. The forecast is for the mid-60's or maybe warmer. Then Monday night we get another clipper.”

        Erik was already heading for the back door. He said goodnight to Sara, went out and headed down the ramp after Emmanuel opened the doors. The chill of the approaching night was already sharp in the air. The sun was a blaze of orange on the horizon as the men headed toward the van.

        “I'm volunteering at Lloyd's grocery in the morning,” Emmanuel said. “Why in hell he ever gave up teaching college to move back here and fart around with a grocery store, I just don't know.”

        “Maybe he wanted to get back close to his people... .”

        Emmanuel ran his hands through his hair. Heaved a sigh. “Maybe. It sure beats me. I sure can't figure people out.” He spat on the grass, glanced at the house, then back at Erik.

        The lift was down and Erik turned around and backed onto it so he faced his friend as the lift cranked back up. When the lift was up, Erik raised his hand in parting, then backed up, turned and headed for the driver's seat. Emmanuel was waiting by the window as Erik transferred with a vigorous hop. He ran the window down.

        “Thanks for helping me, Erik.”

        “Help! what help? Any time, man.”

        Then Emmanuel turned and trod back the way he had come. Moving, it seemed, almost in slow motion, with lumbering strides.

        Erik started the engine and sat there for several moments, pondering wordlessly. Finally put the van in reverse and headed for home.

       

Chapter 5.


        “Why are you wearing that heavy leather jacket?” Dorothy Sunstrom said as her son came in from the garage. “It was warm out today.” She stood by the doorway into the dining room, a magazine in her hand.

        As Erik worked himself free of the jacket, he gazed at his mother.

        A tall woman of 59, square-jawed and rough hewn, wearing a green turtleneck and brown corduroys. Years of tough living had drawn her hard and lean. Her hair was cropped stylishly short and tinted to the light brown color it had been 40 years ago. Her face was surprisingly free from signs of aging, something she ascribed to her will to refuse to grow old and decrepit.

        “It's down to 38 degrees,” he said. “Just heard it on the radio.”

        “Yes, but knowing you, you'll either have your jacket on all day. Or off. You don't like to use your muscles to put it on or take if off.”

        Erik didn't comment.

        “Besides that, you're usually cold all the time!” There was a trace of scorn in her voice.

        “Can't very well help it, Mother. I don't generate much body heat sitting in a wheelchair.”

        “You would if you re-learned to use your right arm and used a manual chair--until you re-learned to walk.” Her green eyes aimed a piercing glance at him; his eyes returned the determination. After a couple seconds he broke eye contact. Dorothy rested her left hand on her hip, briefly.

        She turned to head back to the living room but stopped and asked, “Are you going to tell me where you were last night?”

        “Yeah.” He smiled. “I had a date for a change. We went to the Blue Note and listened to their jazz bands.”

        “I thought you were going to the brain-injury seminar at the hospital last night.”

        “I did that. Took my date there too. She thought it was really interesting. ...Then we went to the tavern, and then to her place.”

        Her green eyes narrowed slightly. “Well, if you had sex with her, I certainly hope you used something. God knows who has AIDS out there these days.”

        “Mother, give me credit for having common sense, please.” He shifted his weight from one hip to the other.

        “Yes...yes, of course!” She smiled. “So when are you going to bring your new girlfriend over so I can meet her?”

        “Not sure. It depends on a lot of things.”

        Dorothy started to pose further questions, but sensed that she wasn't likely to get reasonable answers. Her husband had taken a similar ploy when he hadn't wanted to answer something directly. In many respects, Erik was like him. She turned and headed toward the living room.

        “Are you going to fix dinner?” Erik said.

        “You know I don't like cooking on weekends, dear. I had a nice lunch with Simon, and just before he brought me home, we stopped at Dairy Queen. --But you know where food is.”

        “All right,” he said. Glanced at his watch; a quarter of six left him plenty of time, he decided, and he headed for his room.

        Through the family room to what had been his father's den and study. Now it was his bedroom. He went into the small bathroom, struggled to his feet at the sink, and washed up.

        Back in the kitchen, Erik toasted two slices of bread and squirted on liquid margarine, then opened a can of spaghetti which he dumped in a plastic dish. The way the spaghetti came out of the can reminded him of dog food.

        No matter. He seasoned the pasta liberally with Tabasco. Then got a clean mug from the dishwasher, poured in a guess of a teaspoon of instant coffee, and filled the mug with cold water.

        While he ate some of the toast, everything else heated in the small microwave that sat on the kitchen table. A couple minutes later, Erik dug in.

        It wasn't at all bad for time it took to prepare, he thought as he sipped the steaming black coffee. A bit of a canned taste, but the Tabasco masked most of that.

        Erik flashed back to a time years past. He and Emmanuel squatted close around their small campfire. Where exactly was lost in the fog of time, but the focus of the memory was the rabbit stew they had been eating that night. Seasoned with the piquant flavor of Tabasco.

        Erik remembered how delicious that meal had been.... True, probably because they had been very hungry--that more than anything. Still...

        “That was an interesting rabbit hole,” he mused.

        A while later, the dirty bowl was in the sink, and Erik prepared a second mug of coffee, this one mellowed with some milk. He worked a few sandwich cookies from their place in the cupboard, then managed to transport everything in his lap. Made it back to the table without spilling the mug.

        He heated the water in the microwave, and when he was ready, sat there staring at his brown reflection in the mug. Life was good, he decided. Given the basics, then everything else was so much gravy.

        Thought about Dawn and smiled.






        “I saw Mil Dukrinis at the Sands,” Dorothy called as Erik headed toward his room some minutes later.

        Erik detoured into the living room where his mother sat on the colonial davenport, her right leg crossed over her left, resting the magazine on her leg. “Yeah, so what did the good doctor have to say?”

        “I told him about the dizzy spell I had last Wednesday afternoon. And the spell I had last Sunday. He so much as said that I could drop over from a stroke at any time. He said I should make an appointment to come in and I said I would.”

        “Did he ask you if you're taking your medication?”

        Dorothy waved her hand. Then said, “Yes, and I said that I was. Mil must think I'm just a dumb old broad!”

        “You are taking your pills, aren't you?”

        “Yes, dear. Aspirin every day, even though it upsets my stomach. I'm taking the Coumadin too.”

        “So, maybe he needs to adjust your dosages.”

        “Probably.” Dorothy breathed a sigh. “Usually I feel so good! It-It just seems so unnecessary...you know?” Her green eyes pleaded for reassurance, and Erik steered the bulky wheelchair around the delicate cherry wood furniture and went to the end of the davenport. Dorothy put down the magazine, took off her reading glasses, and went over to him. She hugged him fiercely for several seconds. He put his arm around her.

        “Hey...you okay?” Erik said finally.

        Dorothy nodded into his shoulder, then pushed herself away. Her eyes were moist. “We're all alone in this world, Erik. Everybody else is gone: your father and his family, my parents, your brother. It's just you and me, kid. As far as family goes.” Brusquely, she wiped her eyes and stiffened her back.

        “But that's life, isn't it?”

        Erik nodded. “Yeah, that's life, Mother.”

        She admonished, “Just never forget that you're a Viking. You're made of tough stuff. You have good genes and good strong blood running through your veins!”

        He smiled, almost laughed, and shook his head slightly. “I won't forget.”

        “I mean that! Every word. It was the raw North wind that made the Vikings...it's adversity that keeps people tough. You're not going to lay down and die; you're going to go on. I'm one hundred percent certain that you're going to make a complete recovery, Erik.

        Dorothy's eyes searched her son's face, as if looking for an omen. “I don't care what the doctors say. Whether it's five of them or fifty, they're wrong. You are going to walk again and run again, and have full use of your right arm. You're going to marry a good, strong woman and give me lots of grandchildren. Aren't you?”

        “I suppose it could happen.” It had been months since the last time she had been so overwrought. He wasn't sure whether to humor her or to comfort her.

        “Anything can happen,” Dorothy said. “We've got the power and the control over most of what happens to us. Free will. And if you're will is strong enough, you can have anything!”

        That said, she waved him off. “I'm sorry that I distracted you from what you were going to do. Are you going to work on your computer?”

        “I'm going to tape jazz from Public Radio,” he said. “...I may play around with my system.”

        Dorothy smiled. “Even your 'play' is beyond me.”

        “But it shouldn't be, Mother! You taught high school for thirty years. Kids learn about computers in grade school now, so--” He stopped when she put her fingers to his mouth.

        “I know that computers have been around since I was a girl,” she smiled. They were alien then, and they still are! I'll leave computers to the new generation.“

        In his room, on the built-in desk which ran the length of the east wall, Erik loaded two 110-minute cassettes into the automatic tape deck and tuned the FM receiver to the public radio station in Superior. The Saturday night jazz broadcast began only seconds after he tuned in. Once the taping was underway, he went on to other things.

        He caught up on reading some articles in two of his trade magazines, then for almost forty minutes he worked out with the hand weights. His left arm barely needed any workout. His right arm hardly moved. It took every bit of concentration to grab the weight and bend his arm. The fingers were stiff --reluctant to hold onto the cylindrical weight. The biceps were worse.

        It had been this way since the signs of recovery began to show several months after his injury. Part of his left side, especially the hand, arm, and shoulder made steady progress; the left leg had been much slower. On the right side, signs of rehabilitation were virtually nil.

        “It looks like what happened is that the damage to the left motor areas may be irreversible,” one of the physiatrists had said last January.

        Dorothy had said, “But you're conjecturing, doctor. You don't know that for certain.”

        “With this kind of injury we don't know anything for certain, Mrs. Sunstrom. For all we know about the brain, there's ten times as much we don't know.”

        “So, if my son exercises every day--works day and night--eventually there may develop some kind of regeneration, am I right?”

        “I'd say the chances are slim...but then, we simply don't know.”

        “Well,” she had said, looking at her son, “I know that Erik's not going to give up. To surrender is to die.”

        Given that, Erik had begun a strenuous regimen of exercise. A half hour of hobbling around the house on crutches twice a day. Two hours of exercising both hands and arms. By late August, having seen no improvement in his legs, Erik resigned himself to the convenience of his motorized wheelchair. By now, in November, his arm exercises were reduced to a few times a week for less than an hour each time.

        Dripping with sweat, Erik let loose of the weight. It dropped to the floor and rolled away beneath the long table-desk. He glanced at his watch, then got to his knees and typed the information into his computer.

        Without looking at the record from April, he knew there was little improvement. But he checked anyway. “Less than one percent,” he said to himself. That's probably just my endurance getting better.... I'm able to exercise a bit longer, he thought. He put away the weights and climbed back into the wheelchair.

        Just as he got settled, the jazz program broadcast a vocal of “Someone to Watch Over Me.” The song Dawn had especially liked last night. He felt a surge of warmth thinking of her.

        Wondered if she were home from her cram session yet. He found her phone number scribbled on a slip of paper in his billfold. Sat there, pondering whether or not to call. Finally he decided to, and punched the number on his speakerphone. Turned down the volume on the FM receiver.

        After the phone had rung seven times, Erik was ready to disconnect when she answered.

        “Hi,” he said. “It's Erik.”

        “Oh, hi! I was just now thinking about you while I'm fixing this sandwich.” There were some chewing sounds as Dawn cleared her mouth. “I'm having a grilled cheese. Well--actually, a nuked cheese on toast!”

        “Sounds good,” he said. “You sound good. It's great to hear your voice.

        “I wasn't sure that you'd be home from your cram session at your friend's, but I thought I'd try.”

        “I'm glad you did,” Dawn said, and took a small bite of her sandwich. “I just got home ten minutes ago. Bonnie and I were cramming like we've never done before. From around 12:30 until whatever it was twenty minutes ago. Man, my brain is absolutely fried. It's like mush. Neither of us stopped to eat anything besides snacks, so....”

        “I've been there--”

        “The thing is that we're maybe only half done. We're going to get together here at nine in the morning and work until we drop. Or go crazy. Hey, Erik, I just had an idea.”

        Erik smiled. “Yeah?”

        “You wanna come over and spent the night again? Or am I being too fast and forward? And slutty?” She added with a laugh, “I'm not, really.”

        “I know, I know that. Dawn, there isn't much I'd rather do tonight. In fact, there's absolutely nothing I'd rather do! But I'm home, I've eaten and I'm in my room, relaxing. I just got through exercising, so I'm beat.”

        “All right. I understand.”

        “Not that I wouldn't do it again,” he assured her. “I'd climb ten flights of stairs to be with you. Twenty flights...” His voice trailed.

        The conversation lagged momentarily, then Erik asked when Dawn thought she would have time to get together next.

        “Oh, good question, because you know what? I've got a history midterm on Thursday; then major quizzes in psych and sosh on Friday. So, man, I'm sorry, but my grades really mean a lot.

        “I'm holding a four-point-zero,” she said. “So.... And since this is what I'm building my future on....”

        “That's super, Dawn. Outstanding! --Really.”

        “I'm free next Friday afternoon, like around four. How does that sound?”

        “It sounds like forever from now,” he said. “Otherwise, sounds good.”

        They promised to see one another either late Friday afternoon or Saturday and said goodbye on that note.

       

Chapter 6.


        The bowie knife sliced through the air and hit the birch with a solid thunk. Emmanuel DeForrest went after his knife, worked its five-and-a-half inch blade from its impact spot, and carried it back. Emmanuel wore a denim jacket over the same plaid shirt he'd worn the day before. Unbuttoned, the jacket flapped briskly with the gusts.

        “That's twelve straight bull's eyes,” Erik said, squinting in the brilliant autumn sunshine.

        “I think I would've made a great warrior. I was born 200 years too late.”

        “I wonder what kind of Viking I'd have been, if I was born a thousand years ago. Shit. I sure wouldn't have been racked up in a car crash.”

        Emmanuel laughed, “No, but some enemy might've smashed you over the head with a rock. Same thing.”

        “Yeah, well, at least it would've killed me.” The sun was hot, but the breeze was still chilly, and Erik buried his hands in his jacket pockets.

        They were at Meadow Park, situated on the bank of the Pine River, a ten minute walk from the public schools both had gone to. Some thirty yards to the east, the deep blue waters of the Pine flowed slowly by on its journey toward the St. Croix. The river made a steady rumbling, happily whispering its passage.

        Most of the deciduous trees were barren of leaves: the elms, the maples, the birches. Pretending that their umber leaves were still alive, only the oaks hung onto them.

        The brush and shrubbery was dry and brown, but the grass, where you could spot it through the fallen leaves, was still a vibrant green.

        Emmanuel was debating whether or not to continue his target practice. Finally decided against it, and sheathed the large knife. “What I like about this time of year is that we have the place to ourselves. You know? A cold snap and some snow, and everybody else thinks winter has set in.”

        “Well, it's sure close. This'll probably be the last warm day until March.”

        “Right.” Emmanuel glanced over at his Jeep in the parking lot. “You wanna eat now?”

        After a moment, Erik nodded. “Yeah, let's.”

        He and Emmanuel headed across thirty yards of leaf-covered ground to the parking lot. It was a rough ride traveling at a walking stride. Emmanuel noticed his friend bouncing around in the wheelchair and said, “Don't worry. I'm sure they'll pave this too, eventually.”

        “I'm not looking forward to it.”

        At the Jeep, Emmanuel unloaded two grocery bags, handed Erik one of them, then hefted a bag of charcoal from the vehicle and headed back to a picnic table and grill near where they had been.

        Together, the pair grilled a late lunch of hamburgers, heated a pot of beans, toasted the hamburger buns.

        “Want some?” Emmanuel said, taking a bottle of Yukon Jack from one of the bags.

        “You bet.” Erik held the bottle while Emmanuel unscrewed the top; then took a sip. It warmed him all the way down.

        Emmanuel took a drink, then hid the bottle in the bag. “If you could change us coming back home, would you?”

        The question pulled Erik from his reverie. “You mean, us two just staying on, drifting around? Or doing something else?”

        “Doing something else, probably. It gets pretty tough on the bones, what we were doing.”

        Erik shrugged. “I don't know... no idea. How about you?”

        “I'd have probably chosen something else. I'd have gone on and gotten my degree like I did. But that's the only thing the same.” Emmanuel turned over the burgers and pressed them against the grill top. Stirred the beans.

        “In other words, you wouldn't have been in such a hurry to get married....”

        Emmanuel looked around, briefly, then took the whiskey liqueur from the bag. “Whatever.” Took a sip and passed the bottle to Erik.

        “Well, you were the one who was absolutely positive you were going to be dead before you were thirty. I kept telling you that was nuts. Shit. Can't tell an Indian anything these days!”

        Emmanuel poked Erik in the shoulder just as the latter swallowed a hit of the YJ. Both men laughed. “Do you remember what `kemosabe' means, pale-face? ...Yeah, shit is right.”

        A couple minutes later, he decided that the hamburgers were done and scooped the meat into the buns. Spooned the beans onto two paper plates and gave one to his friend. “Just like downtown,” he said, and sat at the picnic table.

        After several moments, Emmanuel spoke up. “I dreamed about Marguerite last night.”

        Erik didn't respond right away. Waited until he had finished several bites of food. “It's been awhile, hasn't it?”

        Emmanuel nodded. “Yeah... couple years.”

        “You're thinking it's a sign.”

        “I know you don't believe in that, brother. But I do... I think.”

        “What was the dream?”

        “Oh, kinda like most of them,” Emmanuel said, waving his fork in a small circle. “Marguerite and I walking together in the hill-country. There were several scenes from around Austin. Then us making it under a tree.” He paused to eat a forkful of beans, added, “What was different this time was that she said she was still alive and waiting for me on the other side. First time that Marguerite ever said that!

        “I forget what I said to her, but right after that I woke up with a start, man! ...Wow.”

        Erik wasn't sure what to say, so he simply said, “Sounds like an interesting dream.”

        “Yep. Was.”

        The friends ate in silence for several minutes, each lost in his own thoughts. At last Erik said, “So, are you guys going to check with other doctors, or are you going to take Mayo's word as gospel?”

        “Sara wants to. She says this Dr. Greeley is it in fertility... and since she's a nurse--” Emmanuel shrugged. “--I guess it's her call.” He shoveled some beans in his mouth and shook his head. “She says she's tired of being poked and prodded like a cow.”

        “Hey, I can identify with that, bro.”

        “She cried all last weekend after we got home. Two days, solid. Since Sunday night she's been awful quiet.”

        “Well, it's got to be tough, considering her upbringing. Catholic Church. And you too. How many in her family? seven?”

        “Nine,” Emmanuel said. “Seven girls, two boys. Her kid brother just got married, and already his wife's got one in the oven! So I know what she's feeling. But I'm feeling the same thing!”

        Erik nodded. “I know you wanted kids.”

        “More than Sara, I think. ...Maybe not, but--” He stopped abruptly.

        Erik knew there was something else. He downed the last bite of food, then reached for the bottle that was propped against the large left wheel of the chair. Took a sip and offered the bottle. “Are you going to tell me or not? Up to you.”

        Emmanuel took the bottle, took a long pull and set it on the picnic table. “You got to keep this to yourself, brother.”

        “I will.”

        “I don't want you saying anything to whatever chick you're humping. Nobody!” His black eyes narrowed as he looked at Erik. Erik looked back unwaveringly, waiting. After ten or fifteen seconds, Emmanuel looked down at the picnic table. “I think Sara is turning lesbian.” Uttered nearly beneath his breath.

        “You think so because she's just not very affectionate?”

        “That's part of it, Erik, yeah. But there's more. A few months ago I found a book in her purse. By accident, I wasn't snooping. It was something to do with lesbians.” He took another swallow of YJ. “Sara's been getting to be awfully good buddies with this head nurse who's a full blown dyke. But there's more to it than that. It's how she rejects me, it's... .” But he fell silent. Shrugged. “Dunno.”

        “Well, I wouldn't jump to conclusions if I were in your shoes, man.”

        “No.”

        “She still won't go to a counselor?”

        Emmanuel shook his head. “She says that shrinks and marriage counselors are the white man's way. Not the Indian way. We've been over this a hundred times. She teases me that I'm a pussy for even thinking of it.”

        “Sounds to me like Sara's too proud of being a full blood.”

        “And I'm only half, right.”

        Erik leaned back in his chair and gazed at the deep blue sky. Said, “Jesus Fucking H. Christ, people are funny. ...It's sad. Well, how about you guys going to a priest?”

        “I asked her about that. --We were coming home from the state fair down in Chippewa. That was when she says that she no longer believes in God. At least not the white man's god. Not God; not the Church; not the saints or demons or devil. And on and on.”

        Emmanuel got to his feet, stretched mightily, then sat on the end of the picnic table. The chilly wind gusts finally got to him and he buttoned his jacket. Tucked it into his jeans. Said, “Sara's gone through some major changes in the past year. I guess me too.”

        “Well, I don't have any ideas, Emmanuel. Other than to say: just hang on and see what happens. Maybe Sara's going through some kind of physiological changes. Maybe in a few months or a year or whatever she'll be back to her old self.”

        Emmanuel seemed to slump. Heaved a sigh, and said, “I sure hope so. I hope so... .”

        There was an extended silence. Erik was in awe of the day and the scenery; in particular, the deep green of the Scotch pine against the blue of the sky. On an impulse, he slid forward and swung free of the wheelchair and knelt on the grass and leaves in front of him. Earlier, the surface the ground may have cool, but now at 2:20 with the fierce November sun, the grass was warm.

        Erik lay on his back. “This,” he said, “is the only thing more beautiful than a woman. But it's awfully close!” A gust of wind tussled his hair.

        “It is woman,” Emmanuel said. “Our ultimate mother, right here.”

        “You know, this is what I miss most with how things've changed. Staying inside with those fucking computers nine and ten hours a day.”

        “White man cry too much,” Emmanuel teased. “But still have heart of stone!”

        “Yeah. We really fucked the Native Americans over, anyway.” After several moments Erik asked, “So what did you do with the receiver you were working on?”

        “Hey! Got it working a hundred percent! Put in new potentiometers on the volume and bass; that sucker sounds just like it's brand new.”

        “Great. ...But you're still keeping it for another week.”

        “Yep. Just to be sure. And so that customer of Lloyd's thinks that it took me days of work!”

        “Well, the main thing is that the guy is satisfied, Emmanuel. Then he tells his friends, and they tell their friends, and before long, you'll have all the extra work you can handle.”

        “Right. Then Ollie hears about it and fires my ass... . Fat sonofabitch.”

        “Does he handle radio stuff there, or just computers? I thought that he was just selling and fixing PC's.”

        “Ollie quit selling hi-fi equipment about two years ago. But I signed some sort of non-compete deal when he hired me, and I think it had something about me not repairing or selling or whatever any kind of electronics.”

        Emmanuel stepped down from the picnic table and lumbered around in a small circle.

        “Maybe you'd better dig out the agreement you signed and read it over.”

        “Yeah,” Emmanuel said, and was quiet for several moments before adding, “Wouldn't it be great if we could open up our own place? Sell, and repair PC's. You could offer contract programming. We'd be busy as hell.”

        Erik turned onto his right side, into the lowering sun. “That'd be great. But just about impossible because we'd have zero health insurance, firstly. You've got that back problem, and no insurance company in the world would touch me. ...And secondly, I'm no businessman.

        “It's a nice fantasy, owning your own business. But to screw around with all the paperwork, and all the bureaucracies. Hey, no way, bro. Just gimme a paycheck and bennies and I'll do my thing.”

        Emmanuel hunkered down by Erik's feet. “Lloyd was bitching about all the paperwork and so forth this morning. Says it may be a necessary evil, but it's still an evil!”

        “There's something I don't understand about this guy,” Erik said.

        “What?”

        “Didn't you say that he's from the University of Missouri? Was a prof there?”

        “Lloyd was an instructor, I think. He said he was working on his Ph.D. for something like 20 years. Whatever. Comparative philosophy, I think. Comparative something.”

        Erik said, “Well, why on earth would he come back here and open up a mom-and-pop grocery? I mean, it doesn't make sense.”

        Emmanuel said, “Sometime you'll have to talk to Lloyd. Very interesting guy.

        “Sara's been over to Lloyd's house a lot of times since he came back home. She considers Lloyd an elder. He isn't that old, and he's not a full-blood, but Sara really respects him.”

        “Hm, okay,” Erik said. “Well, one of these weekends... . First cousin?”

        “Yep. Lloyd's dad, my mother: brother and sister.”

        Erik moved around and managed to get to his knees in front of the sturdy wheelchair. With a grunt and a hop he was back in. Got situated and rested his feet on the crossbar.

        “Damp?”

        “Cold. All the cold weather we've had, and the ground is cold. Just the leaves and grass got warmed up today. The cold finally soaked through.” Erik stretched out his right arm, then grasped it with his left hand and stretched both overhead. “What a day!”

        “Right. Indian summer.”

        “I haven't felt this great in a long time, Emmanuel.”

        “That's just because you got laid, man!”

        Erik rested his head against the neoprene back of the chair. Faced the full sun with shut eyes. “Probably,” he said. “But I feel so totally great about her...whenever I think of her. It's beyond me. I don't remember having felt like this about a woman. Not ever.”

        Emmanuel chuckled. A smile spread across his broad face. “Sounds fatal to me. Sounds like you're coming down with a severe case of falling in love!”

       

Chapter 7.


        Dawn leaned her head inside the driver's window and kissed Erik on the lips. “I've been dreaming about this all week,” she said. “At least when I wasn't cramming!”

        “God, that's best thing I've tasted in 87 years! One more, please.” He moved toward her lips again and they responded automatically, her mouth warm and sweet.

        She was bundled in her leather coat, boots and mittens. On her head, a stylish furry brown hat topped her flowing blonde hair which was constantly scattered by the wind.

        “So, do you want to try to make it up the stairs? I'll help you all that I can, man, but it is really super icy. I slipped down two stairs just now--well, you saw.” An ice storm that had begun last night and had not subsided until noon had left much of Wisconsin in bad shape.

        “I love you so much,” Erik said quietly. “I want you so bad I can barely stand it! Still... .” He sighed and looked around. It was nearly dark and the city streets were deserted.

        “It must be a winter wonderland,” Dawn said. “I remember how it was back home after an ice storm. Especially when they closed the schools!”

        “Yeah... exactly. It's nice if you can stay home and build a fire. Watch from inside. I had a real tough time getting to work this morning. --Well. Come on and get in beside me.”

        “Okay,” she said. She adjusted the strap that held her purse and headed around the front of the van, hanging on as she went. She slipped two or three times on the ice, but caught her balance each time and a couple minutes later she was in the seat beside him. They greeted one another with a kiss; then another.

        Erik's left hand trembled as he stroked her cheek. “What do you say we just run off together? I mean right now? So we can start sharing the rest of our lives?”

        She smiled. “Hey, I'll buy that.”

        “If only life were that simple,” he said, more to himself than Dawn. He twisted in his seat and looked toward the back of the van. Pondered the situation. “Hmm, there's more than enough room.”

        Dawn turned toward the back, then searched the area behind her seat with her right arm. As far as she could reach, she touched nothing. Said, “Are you thinking what I'm thinking?”

        “I think so.”

        “Have you ever done it in your van before?”

        He shook his head. Then said, “No. Never had the chance. Actually, it wouldn't be that bad if we had blankets or a futon or the like. In the back is nothing. Just bare metal floor. Because of the lift. The van ain't fancy.”

        “Could you maybe run the lift down? Leave it outside so we'd have more room?”

        “No, because I couldn't close the doors.”

        She laughed. “Yes, that would be a bit 'brisk' wouldn't it?”

        “Brisk to the ninth power, baby!” Erik looked toward the darkening sky out the rear windows. “At least it's almost night.”

        “Hey, c'mon. Let's just do it. We're both wearing warm clothes, right?”

        He turned around and started the engine. “I'm game. But at least we're going to get off the street.

        “Be our luck that a police car drives by and sees the van rocking from side to side. Bust us for public fornication or whatever.” He punched the van into first gear and pulled onto the street.

        A couple blocks down the van turned right into an alley and traveled fifty feet to a small parking area.

        “Where are we?”

        “A parking lot for a dry-cleaners. They're closed.” He turned and threw the switch that locked the doors. After he tuned in the college radio station, Erik upped the heater to Hi and the set the fan to full blast. Was satisfied.

        He reached across toward her then and kissed her gently on the mouth. She responded fiercely; his fierceness matched hers. Dawn's hands cradled his head while she kissed him; his hand wrapped around her, and drew her body toward his.

        It was only a few minutes before he couldn't bear it. Reached for the power switch to his wheelchair and backed it carelessly away from where it was wedged between the bucket seats. Then spun around to his knees.

        “C'mon,” he said. “Back on my side of the van. Right behind my seat.”

        “'Kay.” She followed him as he crawled a few feet back.

        He unfastened his cords and pushed them off his hips, then lay back on the bare floor. Dawn crawled over him, then slipped her jeans and panties below her hips.

        At that instant a rumbling came from the far end of the alley, accompanied by bright flashing lights. The noise grew steadily louder as the vehicle neared the van. The couple scrambled to get up.

        In less than fifteen seconds, Dawn had her jeans back up, and was heading back toward the passenger seat. In the same time Erik managed only to hitch his cords back above his hips. A large yellow salt truck lumbered along the alley, lights flashing, passing mere inches from the end of the van.

        After ten or fifteen seconds of silence, Erik exploded. “God damn it! Of all the shit timing! Damn!... damn it!”

        “Jesus Christ, I thought my heart was going to stop,” Dawn managed, with a forced laugh. “I thought it was something like you said: cops going to bust us for public fornication or whatever. What was it?”

        Erik got around to his knees and managed to crawl over and hop into his wheelchair. “It was a city salt truck,” he said at last. “About the cops: I don't think they're that desperate for business.”

        All at once Dawn began to laugh. Her laughter grew wilder and more contagious until Erik's tightness gave way to a smile. The smile became raucous laughter.

        “I just had this picture,” Dawn managed between gasps. “This mental image... Of us, our mug shots on the front page of the paper. The headline reads 'Arrested for Public Fornication.'”

        Erik laughed at that. “Ah, now that's funny. ...But they'd never convict us.”

        “No? Why not?” Dawn wiped the tears from her eyes.

        “Because. People don't think that the disabled can have sex, that's why not. At least, not unless the cops had pictures. Even then people'd say that the pictures were faked.” He laughed again and after several moments said, “Y'know, it's a great life if you've got brass balls!”

        “Hey, what if you don't have balls?”

        “All right. Then brass balls or brass ovaries? Maybe?”

        Dawn reached out and touched his knee. “C'mere.”

        He drove his chair back up between the seats and she cuddled close to his side. Rested her head on his shoulder and stared with sightless eyes. “I think I'm falling in love with you.”

        Erik turned and kissed her on the nape of the neck. “I've already fallen for you, Dawn. Like a hundred ton of bricks. I'm not sure if it was from the first time I saw you, or last week after we were at the Blue Note. But my God, it's hit hard.”

        She turned her face toward his and kissed him. Gently, passionately.

        He put his right arm behind her back and tried to force it up and around her shoulders. Couldn't quite, so he forgot about it and held her close with his left. “I know that it's partly raw sex,” he said quietly, “but there's a lot more than that.”

        She caressed the back of his head for a long time. Finally said, “Do you want to try again? Maybe next time they'll have a tank go by.”

        “Not here! I just had five years scared off my lifespan.”

        “You still want to, don't you?”

        “Yes, very much,” he said.

        “You want me to give you head?”

        Erik grinned. “Only if I can return the favor.” He separated from her, turned around, and transferred back to the driver's seat. Adjusted the fan and snapped off the radio.

        “So where're we going?” she said as the engine came to life.

        “To the Sands. It's a supper club with a motel. Just south of town.”

        “I've eaten there.”

        “Somebody's bound to see us together, but what the hell? We're both legal. Besides, I want people to know that my schlong still works!” He punched the van into reverse and began backing.

        Suddenly Dawn said, “Sandra! Sandra's our answer.”

        “Sandra? Is this the girl you were cramming with?”

        “No, that's Bonnie Firestone, my best friend. Sandra's a blink friend who's still at the dorms. I'm not super-tight with this girl, but she owes me a couple favors from last year.” Dawn smiled to herself and said, “Yes!”

        As they headed back toward Timber Street Erik asked, “Is she in a women's dorm or a coed?”

        “Coed. Hartman Hall.”

        “If we get caught, my ass'll really be in a sling!” Erik laughed as he headed north toward the college. “I'll at least get my ass fired if they catch us... . But what the hey? You're worth it.”

        Dawn reached across and caressed his right thigh. Let her fingers roam a bit further, then broke into a giggle. “You're a horny sonofabitch.”

        “Only when I'm with the most beautiful girl--ever.”

        A little over five minutes later the van turned onto Cavendish Way and headed toward the dormitories. Two minutes later parked in one of the five empty handicap parking slots.

        “The entrance is around twenty feet to the right of your door,” he said.

        “Yeah, I can sense the front lights.”

        “Really? I didn't know you had any light sensitivity. That's great, Dawn.”

        “It's just in the last year or so,” she said. “The doctors didn't believe it at first. Until I proved it to them.”

        “Maybe your sight will come all the way back.”

        “May be; doubt it. The doctors didn't have any clue either.” She took her white cane from her purse; opened the door. “I'll be back,” she said.

        “All right. How's the ground there? Super icy?”

        “No. I think they've salted it pretty well.”

        Erik cut the engine and watched as Dawn cautiously navigated her way to the entrance of the building and disappeared inside.

        Three boys, likely freshman, came out the doors, laughing and shoving each other. Slipped around on the walk and laughed all the more. One of them made two snowballs which he hurled at his friends; and in an instant he got the retaliation he sought. For the briefest moment, Erik wondered what his life would have been like today if he'd just gone on to college after high school. Instead of taking off with Emmanuel.

        “Moot point,” he said to himself. Another path not taken.

        He was reaching across to turn on the radio when Dawn appeared at the entrance. He ran down the passenger-side window.

        “Erik?” she said, not too loudly.

        “Yes,” he called. “Is it a go?”

        “Yes! C'mon! The dorm is deserted! --Well, almost... .”

        “Be there in a minute!” He ran up the window and opened the rear doors, hopped across into his chair and was on the ramp and descending. He was at the entrance a few minutes later.

        Dawn held the outer door for him, then caught the inner door. The wave of heat was both unexpected and pleasant as he rolled inside.

        The lobby of Hartman Hall was virtually deserted. A lone woman student had parked herself in an easy chair in one far corner, surrounded by homework.

        “Sandra says no problem,” Dawn said as she led the way to a doorway toward the left. “She was just going over to see a friend anyway. And her roomie is gone to the Cities for the weekend. So we've got her room until at least midnight.” Without much trouble navigating, Dawn found the door and pulled it open for Erik and he sped inside.

        “Which room?”

        She said, “The fourth on your left.”

        Erik rapped on that door with his knuckles and it was opened by a young woman clad in jeans, red jacket, plaid scarf. Attractive face with scarred eyes that weren't hidden behind sunglasses.

        “Come on in,” she said, and stepped back.

        Erik went inside and Dawn followed, shutting the door behind her. “Erik, this is Sandra. Sandra, Erik,” Dawn introduced.

        The two greeted each other.

        “Listen,” Sandy said. “I hate to run, but I'm already a half hour late. Look around and you'll find stuff. Please use a blanket or something so you don't get come stains on my bedspread. I'm washing tomorrow, so it's no problem to wash the blanket.”

        “Sure,” Dawn said.

        “Okay, well, I'll be back by midnight or one, so you've got till then. Enjoy yourselves!” Sandra grabbed her white cane from the doorjamb, opened the door and stepped through, catching the door behind her. Stopped just before the door shut, and leaned back inside. “Oh, hey, listen up. One thing you've got to watch out is for the resident witch. She's only been here a couple months but already she's got a nickname: the Troll. Bye--”

        “Wait!” Erik said. “Wait, is she around right now?”

        “Don't sweat it,” Sandy said. “She's somewhere like with her College Kids for Jesus. Or maybe its for the Klan. They preach anti-semitism. Anti-Catholic and Mormons and blacks--but mostly just hate Jews. Whatever. Just don't let her catch you, or it'll be really messy.”

        A brief frown crossed Sandra's face. “Once I heard her call me a dirty Jew, but it was under her breath or I would've called the bitch. Linda's a real mental case. That's her disability. I just ignore her. --Anyway, enjoy, enjoy you guys! Byee-e!” Then she was gone.

        “Rats. That tosses a wet blanket on things,” Erik said.

        Dawn bent over him; ran her hand over his head and along the sides of his face. Found his lips and kissed his lower lip. “It just adds a touch of danger, don't you think? It's like seasoning.”

        He sought her lips hungrily and returned her kiss. Again, the response was flawless. She was smiling broadly. She got to her knees in front of the wheelchair, her hands caressing his arms. Then she was unzipping his fly.

        “Oh, Jesus Christ!” Erik said.

        “Now, now. Jesus doesn't have anything to do with this, exactly. It's Dawn.”

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